Cicely Tyson Modeled Harlem Grace
The loss of the legendary actress reminds me of my treasured family’s history
Just minutes before I learned of Cicely Tyson’s death, my mom and I were on the phone singing her praises.
Mom wanted to borrow her new book, Just As I Am: A Memoir. I told her she absolutely could, but she’d have to take the cover off. My mom laughed; she is notoriously rough on books, and the cover art was just too exquisite to suffer any knick. She told me how much Ms. Tyson meant to her growing up in the ’60s and ’70s. The actress was one of the first to wear an afro in all its glory. During a time when the style was bashed by those who didn’t understand it, Ms. Tyson’s choice empowered my mom to know that her own ‘fro was a thing of beauty.
My love of Ms. Tyson stretches a little further in history. From the moment I could understand the stories of a ’50s Harlem the elders of my family would share, I was completely transfixed. I’d shyly sit under the dinner table at Thanksgiving and listen to them share the stories of their childhood and teen years. It was an era when Harlem was entirely Black, from the people, to the culture, to the music in the streets. Ms. Tyson’s name would often come up, as would the late Diahann Caroll. My beloved Tati would talk about her friendship with a young James Baldwin and being tutored by Langston Hughes. When seeing Miles Davis, Sarah Vaughn, and Billie Holiday was the norm, in both jazz clubs and around the community. It’s a part of my family history that is so precious, one even impossible to imagine.
And then there was the style. Tati’s clothes were tailored for decades — she’d often tease me for wearing something as simply made as jeans. Their intonations — words like “honey” and “sugar lum” — carried such sweetness and grace. Their lives were ones of dignity and massive self-worth, among bigotry outside of Harlem’s early years that I couldn’t imagine.
I know that Ms. Tyson has lived extraordinarily, and it’s only a reason to celebrate. But her memory is one I’ll carry with me because it was instilled in me by her peers.